Words empty as the wind are best left unsaid.


A picture is worth a thousand words.

~Napoleon Bonaparte

Monday, 3 December 2012

Religion in ancient Rome

Let's look at religion in ancient Rome.

From the beginning of the Roman Republic to the end of the empire, people ruled by Rome d didn't have freedom of choice what deities they wanted to worship as well as what rituals they wanted to be a part of. To proper functioning of Roman state depended on a strict supervision of religion by Roman authorities. In fact, new deities and cults couldn't function without being approved by the senate or the emperor and senate decided what was acceptable or not in religious worship. Control of religion was perceived to be necessary in order to have a full control over people. Since politics and religion were inextricably linked, roman religion did adapt itself to political changes. (Cowley, 2008, p. 2-3). 

Cesare Maccari, Representation of a sitting of the Roman Senate: Cicero attacks Catilina, from a 19th century fresco

Religious power was dived among pontifices, augures, and decimviri and priests occupied a critical position in Roman political life. The power of pontifices rested in meditating between the senate and the citizens. The leading member of the College of Pontiffs was the Pontifex Maximus. (Cowley, 2008, p.8-9)

The Collegium Pontificum was the most important priesthood of ancient Rome. The foundation of this sacred college and the office of Pontifex Maximus is attributed to the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius.

In the Roman Republic, the Pontifex Maximus was the highest office in the state religion of ancient Rome and directed the College of Pontiffs. According to Livy, after the overthrow of the monarchy, the Romans created the priesthood of the rex sacrorum, or "king of sacred rites," to carry out certain religious duties and rituals previously performed by the king. The rex sacrorum was explicitly deprived of military and political power, but the pontifices were permitted to hold both magistracies and military commands.]
The official residence of the Pontifex Maximus was the Domus Publica ("State House") which stood between the House of the Vestal Virgins and the Via Sacra, in the Roman Forum.

The Pontifex was not simply a priest. He had both political and religious authority. It is not clear which of the two came first or had the most importance. In practice, particularly during the late Republic, the office of Pontifex Maximus was generally held by a member of a politically prominent family. It was a coveted position mainly for the great prestige it conferred on the holder; Julius Cesar became pontifex in 73 BC and pontifex maximus in 63 BC.

Later, the word "pontifex” become a term used by Catholic bishops and and the title of "Pontifex Maximus" was applied within the Roman Catholic Church to the pope as a chief bishop.

The pontifical collage, a religious expert, supervised both religion and religious officials that included the vestals, rex sacrorum, and flamines, (Cowley, 2008, p.8)

 Portrait of a flamen. Marble, ca 250-260 AD.

 The augurs, on the other hand, mediated between men and god. The main role of augurs was to interpret the will of the gods by studying the flight of birds. This was known as "taking the auspices” Romans inherited predicting the future through studying birds from the Etruscan who were masters of this art. Cicero was a member of this collage. The importance of the tradition of taking the auspices was emphasized by Cicero as he stated that "No public business was conducted without taking the auspices first” The interpretation of omen was used as an excuse to suspend a session that was not going the way they wanted or stopped the legislation. (Cowley, 2008, p. 9 -10).

An augur holding a lituus the curved wand often used as a symbol of augury on Roman coins

A lituus (reverse, right, over the patera) as cult instrument, in this coin celebrating the pietas of the Roman Emperor Herennius Etruscus.

A crosier (crozier, pastoral staff, paterissa, pósokh) is the stylized staff of office (pastoral staff) carried by high-ranking Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and some Lutheran and Pentecostal prelates.

                                  Western crosier of Archbishop Heinrich of Finstingen

More croziers
Finally, the quindecimviri sacris faciundis, priests of sacred matters, were the fifteen (quindecim) members of a college with priestly duties. Most notably they guarded the Sibylline Books, scriptures which they consulted and interpreted at the request of the Senate. This collegium also oversaw the worship of any foreign gods which were introduced to Rome. Romans believed that Tarquinius Priscus, was the legendary fifth King of Rome brought the Sibylline books from the Cumaean Sibyl and place them in the care of quindecimviri sacris faciundis to be consulted only at the command of the senate when state was facing a disaster or prodigies. (Cowley, 2008, p. 10-11).

According to Wikipedia, The Sibylline Books should not be confused with the so-called Sibylline Oracles, twelve books of prophecies thought to be of Judaeo-Christian origin.

First, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus was a king between 616 BC to 579 BC.
Second, those books were vital components in legitimating change in the state religion since the books were understood as being very old, yet recommended introducing new deities and rituals. (Cowley, 2008, p 11).
Those books couldn't be that of Judeo-Christian religion.

Michelangelo, Cumaean Sibyl, the Sistine Chapel, Vatican

It is important to mention the order of Aruspices.
The order of Aruspices was made up of twelve priests although towards the end of the Republic they were increased to something closer to 20. The name itself comes from "ab aris aspiciendis" - looking upon the altars.

 A soothsayer (from Latin ara, altar, and Inspicio, examined), Haruspex transcribes Latin, Etruscan soothsayer was examining the entrails of a sacrificial animal for omens for the future.
The soothsayers of Etruria were consulted privately throughout the Roman Empire .The Roman Senate had to "Etruscan discipline" in high regard and consulting soothsayers before making a decision. The Emperor Claudius studied the Etruscan language. , learned to read, and created a "college" of 60 haruspices which existed until the 408 . They offered their services to Pompeian, prefect of Rome, to save the city from the assault of the Goths , the Christian bishop Innocent, but reluctantly agreed to this proposal provided that the rites remain secret. As is known, the practice had little effect on invasions. It lasted, therefore, throughout the six century.
 Let’s look at foreign cults in Rome.

Cult of Isis

Isis had reached Italy through Italian merchants who carried her cult from Delos to Compania some time during the Republic. The goddess Isis was the Egyptian throne personified and deified and her son Horus was thus the god with whom the king of Egypt became identified, the living manifestation of his divinity (Lesko, 1999, p. 190). In fact, The epithet of Horus “the Great God” appeared with the names of the kings in the Fourth and fifth Dynasties – Snefru, Khufu ( Cheops), and Sahure. Even Pepi I was called on his coffin,”the Great God, Lord of the Horizon” and “Horus of the Horizon, Lord of Heaven”( Frankfort, 1978, p. 39).

The embodiment of the king of gods promoted in ancient Egypt probably served as a validation of their claim of absolute power, providing them with more effective mechanism of political control. Likewise, Roman emperors clearly saw the benefit of employing the idea of divine kingship always associated with Egypt’s pharaohs as many favored a cult of Isis and Serapis. Emperors easily assimilated Egyptian features. For example, Caesars were portrayed in the traditional nemes headdress and short kilt of Egypt's kings or Caligula who claimed divinity, brought an obelisk from the Egypt and built a temple for her at Campus Martius. (Lesko, 1999, p.190 -193).

                                                            Vatican obelisk

In 59, 58, 53, 50, and 48 BC, the senate took action against the cult of Isis and Sarapis primarily for political reasons. The suppression of Isis and serapis was an attempt to regain political power as it occurred in times when senate was weak. In times of Julius Cesar anti Egyptian attitudes intensified and were exacerbated after Decius Mondus, the Roman Knight, masqueraded as god Anubis raped a noble woman in Isis temple. After closing the temple the cult of Isis appeared again, proving that the cult was popular to be ignored. However, the cult was prohibited again in 28BC that signified Octavian’s victory over Antony and Cleopatra. (Lesko, 1999, p. 193).

                                    Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Anthony and Cleopatra

As the cults of Isis reappeared again in Rome in 21 BC, Agrippa took action against them to protect Augustus policy and as such his authority. Isis’ devotees were forbidden to move freely and were banned within one mile of the city. The repercussion reflected the anxiety of those in power about large groups and its potential to disrupt that those in power disliked the most.

Finally, Isis and Serapis found a place in roman pantheon under Flavian patronage in an attempt to restore the inner order of the empire. To accomplish this required re-establishing pax deorum ( peace with gods). Since Egypt provided economic stability, Isis and Serapis had to be appeased. Even though some emperors were actively involved in suppression of the cult of Isis and Serapis, their desire for autocratic power led to their association and imitation of Egyptian rulers. (Cowley, 2008, p.28).

Sir Edward John Poynter, Offering to Isis

Sir Edward John Poynter,  Adoration of Ra

Noel Coypel, Sacrifice to Jupiter

Luca Giordano, Psyche's Parents Offering to Apollo

François PerrierThe Sacrifice of Iphigenia

Sebastiano Ricci,  Sacrifice to Vesta

Francisco de Goya, The sacrifice to Vesta

Sacrifice to god pan Bernardino Luini

Sebastiano Ricci, Sacrifice to Silenus

William Waterhouse, Household Gods


The druids  formed  an institution composed of men from a privileged class  who were exempted from taxation and usually took no part in warfare.  The Druids were extremely influential over some Gauls and they performed religious ceremonies involving human sacrifice. (Cowley, 2008 p.29)

A wicker man,  that, according to Caesar, was used to sacrifice humans to the gods

Wicker man, engraving

The Gauls are terrifying in aspect and their voices are deep and altogether harsh; when they meet together they converse with few words and in riddles, hinting darkly at things for the most part and using one word when they mean another; and they like to talk in superlatives, to the end that they may extol themselves and depreciate all other men. Philosophers, as we may call them, and men learned in religious affairs are unusually honored among them and are called by them Druids.

They also observe a custom which is especially astonishing and incredible, in case they are taking thought with respect to matters of great concern; for in such cases they devote to death a human being and plunge a dagger into him in the region above the diaphragm, and when the stricken victim has fallen they read the future from the manner of his fall and from the twitching of his limbs, as well as from the gushing of the blood, having learned to place confidence in an ancient and long-continued practice of observing such matters. 4 And it is a custom of theirs that no one should perform a sacrifice without a "philosopher"; for thank-offerings should be rendered to the gods, they say, by the hands of men who are experienced in the nature of the divine, and who speak, as it were, the language of the gods, and it is also through the mediation of such men, they think, that blessings likewise should be sought.
Diodorus of Sicily,  5.  31; p. 179- 181

Strabo reported almost identical description of a Gallic human sacrifice overseen by druids. The question arises if those ancient authors witnessed those practices or depended upon earlier written sources. I would require a deeper  investigation into that subject to evaluate whether those reports, in fact,  confirmed the Druids practices of human sacrifices or served a pro-Roman purpose to suppress the cult used as political propaganda against the Gauls.
The active persecution of Druids was taken by the Romans due to the fact that Druids posed a threat with their subversive political influence, Gallic nationalism  and anti Roman bias.  Second, Druids kept the same influential position over the Gauls as Roman priests. The active prosecution of Druids, therefore, was not as a result of their participation in human sacrifice. Nevertheless,conducting human sacrifice practices were incompatible with those of Roman citizens. 

The first prosecutions took place under Augustus who prohibited the cult for Roman citizens, followed by prohibition in the Gallic provinces. Subsequently, the druids were suppressed by Tiberius and Claudius. The cult went underground and in AD 71 the Druids were inciting the Gauls to a national rising, claiming that the sovereignty of the world will go to the people beyond Alps. The cult who claimed to know the future was very dangerous to the established order and Romans were correct in their effort to suppress the cult.
(Cowley, 2008 p.29-31)

 Imaginative illustration of 'An Arch Druid in His Judicial Habit'


The rites spread to Rome from the Greek colonies in Southern Italy; here they were secret and only attended by women. The festivals occurred in the grove of  Simila near the Aventine Hill  on March 16 and March 17. Later, admission to the rites was extended to men, and celebrations took place five times a month. According to Livy, the extension happened in an era when the leader of the Bacchus cult was  Paculla Annia – though it is now believed that some men had participated before that.

Livy informs us that the rapid spread of the cult, which he claims indulged in all kinds of crimes and political conspiracies at its nocturnal meetings, led in 186 BC to a decree of the  Senate – the so-called Senatus consultum de Bacchanaiibus,  inscribed on a bronze tablet discovered in Apulia in Southern Italy (1640), now at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna – by which the Bacchanalia were prohibited throughout all Italy except in certain special cases which must be approved specifically by the Senate. In spite of the severe punishment inflicted on those found in violation of this decree (Livy claims there were more executions than imprisonment), the Bacchanalia survived in Southern Italy long past the repression.

 Auguste Levêque, Bacchanalia

Cult of African Saturn

 Phoenicians who settled in North Africa in the 9th   and 8th BC brought their own gods and profoundly changed the existing social, economic and religious institutions. Phoenicians believed in cosmic order ruled by one all powerful god Baal Hamon who could only be honored by blood sacrifices of children that was seen as an ultimate offering that would ensure the favor of god. Archeological evidence shows that animal and human sacrifice was institutionalized and a normal part of Punic cult and sacrifice was practiced in times of crisis, annually and for private reasons by parents. Evidence from Carthaginian  Evidence from Carthage suggests that sacrifice of children was not a sporadic occurrence but children were often sacrificed.
The Greeks identified Baal Hamon with the Greek god Cronos since myth held that Cronos ate his children. Romans following the Greeks identified Baal with god  Saturn. Connections between two gods didn’t stop sacrifices to Baal and it were performed until 200 AD. In cities that were Romanized at an early age,  the cult of Baal disappeared or has been changed and was kept only by the poorer inhabitants. Although Romans did not stop the sacrifice of children, the made a great impact against the practice in some places.  (Cowley, 2008 p. 38-41)

 Statue of the Carthaginian god Baal Hamon


Magicians, astrologers and those who practiced similar rites such as such as sorcerers, soothsayers, seers, mathematici, and Chaldeans posed a threat to Roman state. Even though these groups did not form association and required loyalty nor they met regularly, their practices were not compatible with state religion and as such they were regarded as a threat.
Astrologers and magicians were expelled from Rome in 33 BC. Octavian, however, appointed  men to be diviners and augus to consult them but   workers in magic were forbidden. Twenty years later,  Augustus  ordered  to burn all books on the magical arts. Subsequently, in 16CE, magicians and astrologers were expelled from Italy and expulsion was reinstated in 69 CE by   Vespasian  and Domitian in 89 CE.  The emperor Constantine I  issued a ruling to cover all charges of magic, distinguishing between helpful charms, not punishable, and antagonistic spells. (Cowley, 2008 p. 32- 33)

 According to G. Luck, magic differed from religion in many aspects: magic believed to be manipulative whereas religion relied on prayer and sacrifice; magic was practiced for specific ends,  whereas religion stressed spiritual rebirth, salvation or eternal life; magic focused on individual (often selfish and immoral) needs , whereas religion concentrated on the well being of others, magic was secretive,  performed at night, in secluded places, whereas religious practiced took place during the day, visible for all; magical incantations addressed to a daemon were performed silently pronounced with a special hissing sound, the susurrus magicus  whereas prayers to the gods were performed aloud. Finally, magic involved payment to the magician to bring about whatever results the client wanted.  (Luck, 2006 p. 3)

Lucan describes witches as the opposite of a proper citizen in every way. Witches used incantation, worked in the dark, used necromancy and made disgusting concoctions out of rotten bodies and foods instead of fresh produce from fields.

These sinful rites and these her sister's songs
Abhorred Erichtho, fiercest of the race,
Spurned for their piety, and yet viler art
Practised in novel form.  To her no home
Beneath a sheltering roof her direful head
Thus to lay down were crime: deserted tombs
Her dwelling-place, from which, darling of hell,
She dragged the dead.  Nor life nor gods forbad
But that she knew the secret homes of Styx
And learned to hear the whispered voice of ghosts
At dread mysterious meetings. 
Funeral pyres she loves to light
And snatch the incense from the flaming tomb.

Pregnant wombs
Yield to her knife the infant to be placed
On flaming altars: and whene'er she needs
Some fierce undaunted ghost, he fails not her
Who has all deaths in use.  Her hand has chased
From smiling cheeks the rosy bloom of life;
And with sinister hand from dying youth
Has shorn the fatal lock: and holding oft
In foul embraces some departed friend
Severed the head, and through the ghastly lips,
Held by her own apart, some impious tale
Dark with mysterious horror hath conveyed
Down to the Stygian shades.

Summoned up from Styx,
Its ghostly tenants had obeyed her call,
And rising fought once more.  At length the witch
Picks out her victim with pierced throat agape
Fit for her purpose.  Gripped by pitiless hook
O'er rocks she drags him to the mountain cave
Accursed by her fell rites, that shall restore
The dead man's life. Then to her prayer.
First through his gaping bosom blood she pours
Still fervent, washing from his wounds the gore.
Then copious poisons from the moon distils
Mixed with all monstrous things which Nature's pangs
Bring to untimely birth; the froth from dogs
Stricken with madness, foaming at the stream;
 Lucan, Pharsalia; Dramatic Episodes of the Civil Wars 6 p.72-78

Edward Frederick Brewtnall - A Visit to the Witch (detail)

Since magicians were believed to be able to communicate directly with divinities, they became a threat to the governing body of Rome - the emperor or senate  would lose their privileged position as a mediator between humans and  that of the gods. In fact,  magicians were suspected to discover secretes and to acquire some power over the deity in question with intention to do harm. Roman authorities were not against prophecy as   augurs was a   part of a  collegium of priests but magicians posed a threat as they were not under the control of senate. Senate, therefore, did not know what advice the magicians gave and what information they could and could not reveal. (Cowley, 2008 p. 34 -35)

Magic involved enchanted amulets to bring pain and sickness of its owner, evil symbols attached to a name of a victim, verbal courses, name or image attached to a piece of bronze with nails pierced through. Magic used to instill love was under the death penalty for anyone found guilty.

 According to Pliny, magic originated in Persia, under Zoroaster. 

The first person, so far as I can ascertain, who wrote upon magic, and whose works are still in existence, was Osthanes, who accompanied Xerxes, the Persian king, in his expedition against Greece. It was he who first disseminated, as it were, the germs of this monstrous art, and tainted therewith all parts of the world through which the Persians passed. Authors who have made diligent enquiries into this subject, make mention of a second Zoroaster, a native of Proconnesus, as living a little before the time of Osthanes. That it was this same 'Osthanes, more particularly, that inspired the Greeks, not with a fondness only, but a rage, for the art of magic, is a fact beyond all doubt: though at the same time I would remark, that in the most ancient times, and indeed almost invariably, it was in this branch of science, that was sought the highest point of celebrity and of literary renown. At all events, Pythagoras, we find, Empedocles, Democritus, and Plato, crossed the seas, in order to attain a knowledge thereof, submitting, to speak the truth, more to the evils of exile than to the mere inconveniences of travel. Returning home, it was upon the praises of this art that they expatiated—it was this that they held as one of their grandest mysteries. It was Democritus, too, who first drew attention to Apollobeches of Coptos, to Dardanus, and to Phœnix: the works of Dardanus he sought in the tomb of that personage, and his own were composed in accordance with the doctrines there found. That these doctrines should have been received by any portion of mankind, and transmitted to us by the aid of memory, is to me surprising beyond anything I can conceive. All the particulars there found are so utterly incredible, so utterly re- volting, that those even who admire Democritus in other respects, are strong in their denial that these works were really written by him. Their denial, however, is in vain; for it was he, beyond all doubt, who had the greatest share in fascinating men's minds with these attractive chimeras.

Moses, no doubt, was represented by the Egyptian priesthood as a magician, in reference more particularly to the miracles wrought by him before Pharaoh. From them the Greeks would receive the notion.

 In 2 Tim. iii. 8, we find the words, "Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth." Eusebius, in his Prœ paratio Evangeliea, B. ix., states that Jannes and Jambres, or Mambres, were the names of Egyptian writers, who practised Magic, and opposed Moses before Pharaoh. This contest was probably represented by the Egyptian priesthood as merely a dispute between two antagonistic schools of Magic.

There is another sect, also, of adepts in the magic art, who derive their origin from Moses, Jannes, and Lotapea,Jews by birth, but many thousand years posterior to Zoroaster: and as much more recent, again, is the branch of magic cultivated in Cyprus. In the time, too, of Alexander the Great, this profession received no small accession to its credit from the influence of a second Osthanes, who had the honour of accompanying that prince in his expeditions, and who, evidently, beyond all doubt, travelled over every part of the world.
 Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 30. 2. 

Jannes and Jambres, or sometimes Johanai and Mamre, or Iannes and Mambres, or Janis and Jamberes, are names traditionally given to the magicians who contended with Moses and Aaron and were  discomfited by the Hebrew leaders in the  Hebrew Bible Book of Exodus.


Jewish groups who lived in many cities of the Roman world  generally were able to maintain their own religious traditions. The Jews would not have seemed drastically different from the other ethnic groups living among Roman communities. Since they did not seek vigorously (compared to the Christians) to convert their neighbors to their practices, the Jews were not perceived as a  threat to those living in close proximity to them.  Although the Jews did not win converts out of certain Romans, they attracted  many sympathizers which angered Rome. Furthermore, Judaism prevented Jews from fully integrating into Roman life and  devotion to Judaism  had a political aspect. In fact, allusions to the political power possessed by Jewish communities can be found in both Horace and Cicero and suggest that Roman authorities had reason to fear the political ramifications of large groups of Jews. Similar feelings of fear and anger towards the Jews were felt later and expressed by both Juvenal and Tacitus in their writings. (Cowley, 2008 p. 43)

Putti bearing a menorah, on a  cast of a 2nd–3rd century relief (original in the National Museum of Rome)

The Jews being exclusive yet accepting converts, along with their ideological cohesion and thus political influence, was  the reason for ancient authors to see the Jews as particularly dangerous.

 While some  did not see  benefit in befriending the Jews, Julius Caesar did as he was grateful to the Jews for their assistance during his war with Pompey.  Although Caesar banned collegia, fearing their role in social or political disorder, he allowed Jewish thiasoi in Rome to continue collecting money and meeting together. Cesar’s actions served as important precedents to his successors who generally tried to imitate his treatment of the Jews. Caesar formalized and legalized  Jews rights to have religious liberty and established Judaism as an incorporated body with an authorized cult throughout the empire, a status that it held for over three centuries. However,  the preferential treatment of Jews  led to resentment against the Roman state and the Jews on the part of non-Jews living under  Roman rule.   

The relationship between the Romans and Jews was always uncertain. Tiberius banished approximately 4000 Jews to Sardinia to serve in the army along with the followers of Isis, magicians and astrologers in AD 19.  Afraid of breaking the Jewish laws, the Jews were further punished for refusing to serve. It can be assumed that  the Jews committed offences that Tiberius and the senate considered as deserving such a heavy penalty.  (Cowley, 2008 p. 44-46)

 Caligula faced  troubles in his dealings with the Jews of Alexandria since relations between the Greek, Egyptian, and the Jewish residents there had never been good. In fact,  the Greeks and Egyptians resented the right to self-government that the Jews had received under the Ptolemies and continued to hold under Roman rule.  Caligula did not stop the riots in Alexandria and solve the problems between the Jewish, Greek,  and Egyptian residents problems that were centuries old.

Claudius also had problems with the Jews that were settled by urging the people of Alexandria to allow the Jews to practice their faith in peace, and warning the jews "not to agitate for more privileges than they formerly possessed” Later,  Claudius closed the synagogues in Rome and may have expelled some "because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus. The Jews  were  perceived as political opposition to Rome when they revolted in AD 66. It does not seem that Nero brutally suppressed the Jews at this time because he inherently hated them. In fact,  the great fire of Rome (AD64) it was the Christians, not the Jews, who were blamed. Nero’s response matched the threat:  Vespasian was sent to put down the revolt. Consequently, Vespasian's son, Titus, took Jerusalem by siege, destroyed the Temple, and abolished the council of the Sanhedrin and the office of High Priest. He further prohibited  proselytizing, and forced  the Temple tax to be paid to Jupiter Capitolinus. A policy of toleration was surprisingly reinstated  after the suppression of  the revolt. It was likely due to the fact that  Romans drew  distinction between Diaspora Jews and those of Judaea who carried out the revolt; the Diaspora was not to blame for the actions of Jewish nationalists.
(Cowley, 2008 p. 48-49)

Relief from the Arch of Titus in Rome depicting a menorah and other objects looted from the Temple of Jerusalem carried in a Roman triumph

While the Diaspora Jews didn't  take part in revolting against Rome in AD 66, those living in Egypt, Cyprus, Cyrene, and Mesopotamia turned against their Roman overlord in AD 116.The Jews in Alexandria and Cyrene attacked their Greek neighbors without reason around AD 115, which brought Roman troops to the scene. The revolt was suppressed in AD 117 but it increased Jewish resentment against Rome which turned into an even larger problem in AD  132 as the Jews of Palestine made their second and final attempt to escape Roman rule under the leadership of a man known as Bar Kokhba, believed by many to have been a messiah.
The consequence of posing a serious threat to Roman domination resulted in severe punishment; the new city was built over Jerusalem, Aelia Capitolina, the renaming of the province of Judaea to Syria Palaestina, and the expulsion of Jews from the area.  (Cowley p. 49-50)

Figure of a holy man from the wall paintings at the  synagogue of Dura-Europs (3rd century)

After the last attempt to liberate Judea, the Jews accepted the protection of Rome. Even during the Christian persecutions of Decius (c.250) and Diocletian (February 303 and March 304),, the Jews were exempted from officially supervised sacrifice in honor their national gods. The Roman government had a positive attitude towards  the Jews as long as they did not pose a threat to the social or political order. In general, when law and order was secured, the Jews had nothing to fear from Rome. (Cowley, 2008 p.52)


Rome took some actions against religious group whom they perceived as a theat. Whether it was violent or not, the reaction was based on the level of perceived threat. However, two exceptions standout:  the Bacchanalia suppression and the persecution of the Christians as Romans took radical action in defiance of pagan life.

The first three centuries constitute the age of Martyrs,  ended in 313 when  the emperors Constantine and Licinius gave freedom to the Church. The persecution was not always systematic and universal, nor equally cruel and bloody. In fact, periods of persecution were followed by periods of relative peace.

Henryk Siemieradzki, Christian Dirce.

The first documented case of imperially supervised persecution of the Christians in the Roman Empire begins with Nero (37–68). In 64 AD, a  great fire broke out of Rome, destroying portions of the city and economically devastating the Roman population. Nero himself was suspected as the arsonist by Suetonius, claiming he played the lyre and sang the 'Sack of Ilium' during the fires. In his Annals,  Tacitus (who claimed Nero was in Antium at the time of the fire's outbreak), stated that "to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians  by the populace" (Tacit. Annals XV,

Jean-Léon Gérôme - Last Prayers of the Christian Martyrs

The Christians were officially accused of  the burning of the city  and this created a widespread public opinion hostile to the new religion. The historian Tacitus regarded Christianity as ‘a pernicious superstition’; Suetonius  described it as ‘novel and mischievous’; Pliny the Younger as ‘depraved and extravagant.’Tacitus went as far as calling the Christians enemies of mankind. Therefore it is not surprising that ordinary people attributed to Christians all sorts of monstrosities such as infanticide and cannibalism, etc.

According to Tacitus, Nero ordered Christians to be thrown to dogs, while others were crucified or burned to serve as lights.

 Henryk Siemierdzki, Nero's Torches (Christian Candlesticks). 

In the middle of the third century AD  persecutions became systematic. These changes coincided with the rapid decline of Rome's military and political situation.  The Christian religion  was considered the most dangerous enemy of the power of Rome as it was not based on the emperor's worship.

The Christian religion was proclaimed "strana et illicita - strange and unlawful" (Senatorial decree of the year 35); "exitialis - deadly"(Tacitus); "prava et immodica - wicked and unbridled" (Plinius); "nova et malefica - new and harmful" (Svetonius); "tenebrosa et lucifuga - mysterious and opposed to light" (from "Octavius" by Minucius); "detestabilis- hateful" (Tacitus)’

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (70- ca.140) justified the prosecution of Christians defining "new and malicious superstition”. As a "superstitio", Christianity was linked to "magia". For the Romans it was the same as the irrational practices which magicians and witches of evil character used to deceive the ignorant populace who had no training in philosophy. Magic was against reason and was common knowledge as opposed to philosophical knowledge. The accusation of magia (witchcraft), as well as that of insanitywas a weapon with which the Roman State branded and suppressed new and suspect groups in society, such as Christianity.

Decius (249 AD)  ordered officially supervised sacrifice by all  inhabitants of the empire  to the state deities.   The edict led to many executions for those who refused to sacrifice, especially Christians, and it evoked great disputes and controversies among Christians because many had obeyed the order.

A few years later, Emperor Valerian (253-260) launched another persecution. In AD 257, his first edict  ordered the arrest of Christians, demanding that they face sacrifice or  face imprisonment or exile. The second edict, ordered further  prosecution of Christians by executing bishops, priests and deacons.  Christian resistance was much firmer: they were many martyrs and very few Christians who proved unfaithful (these were called the lapsi).

The severest persecution was under Emperor Diocletian who issued between February 303 and March 304 four edits aimed at wiping out Christianity and the Church once and for all. Christian worship was declared illegal and all clergy were imprisoned. The persecution was violent in the extreme and made many martyrs in most provinces of the empire.
The long years of prosecution ended in  313 AD.  In February 313, Constantine I, emperor controlling the western part of the Roman Empire and Licinius, controlling the Balkans, met in Milan and, agreed to treat the Christians benevolently. (Cowley, 2008 55-56)

Cowley, A. (2008). Religious Toleration and Political Power in the Roman World. 
Diodorus of Sicily,  5.  31; 
Frankfort, H.( 1978) Kingship and the gods.
Lesko, B. (1999). The Great Goddesses of Egypt.
Lucan, Pharsalia; Dramatic Episodes of the Civil Wars 6
 Luck, G. (2006).  Arcana Mundi, Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds. A Collection of Ancient Texts Translated, Annotated and Introduced.  
Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 30. 2.